Archive: Issue No. 73, September 2003

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Samson Mudzunga at the Johannesburg Art Gallery
by Brenton Maart

Samson Mudzunga, master sculpture and performance artist, is currently showing his ceremonial drums at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. Titled 'Suka Dzhivha Fundudzi', the exhibition opened on August 9 with a rousing performance by Tshigombela drummers and dancers. The dancers will perform again at the closing ceremony on Heritage Day, September 24, at 11am.

Curated by Pitso Chinzima, the exhibition focuses on Mudzunga's bridges between physical and spiritual, rural and urban, traditional and contemporary, and private and public. In his catalogue essay, 'Private versus public, tradition versus contemporary: A case of conflicting discourses in the art and life of Samson Mudzunga', Chinzima elaborates on this further. Portions of the text are extracted herewith.

"The differences between the concepts of private and public, and also between those of traditional and contemporary, have always been a battle for artists from the rural areas in South Africa, with particular reference to artists from Venda. Samson Mudzunga, specifically, employs a public and contemporary approach to private and traditional objects," writes Chinzima.

"The exhibition of drums and sculptural objects by Mudzunga at the Johannesburg Art Gallery titled 'Suka Dzivha Fundudzi' investigates to what extent Mudzunga uses his art to deal with this reality. This exhibition and accompanying catalogue is part of a series of recent initiatives to attempt to understand the preoccupations of an artist whose private and public lives have never been inseparable, even under severe forms of denial from an art and a cultural world that often does not understand his art."

Chinzima further states: "Mudzunga is a contemporary of artists who were once labelled, in art critical theory, with the disenfranchising category of Venda Artists. In his essay in the catalogue accompanying the First Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, Rashid Diab writes about this alienating methodology that, 'These labels and concepts have lead to notions of traditionality, authenticity, modernism, popular art and consequently to the segregation of Modern African Art from the realm of contemporary Modern art per se.'"

Quoting Diab further, Chinzima quotes Diab's argument that, "The work of art has quite a different value within the society in which it is manifest, than it might have in another. Each work evokes aesthetics and non-aesthetic associations, which are determined by the culture to which it belongs."

As Chinzima argues, "Diab seems to say that, when we put up any philosophical theory about art of any culture, we should look at our positions first and acknowledge all the dynamics of the culture we are dealing with. In this vein, it is vital that exhibitions and catalogues like this one on Mudzunga are put to the task of rewriting the history of art produced by Venda speaking artists."

Quoting a recent unpublished interview conducted with Mudzunga, Chinzima says that Mudzunga's artistic skills are natural, as with any other child. "Carving is not a skill he was formally schooled in, a characteristic he shares with his contemporaries Jackson Hlungwane and Noria Mabasa.

"In relating his background, Mudzunga tells that his family are from the area around Lake Fundudzi, currently under the leadership of the Tshiavha royalty. He says that the Mudzunga's are a close family of the Tshiavha's, as the Mudzungas continue to be buried in Lake Fundudzi. Lake Fundudzi is one of the areas in Venda tradition that have a sacred status due to Venda cosmology and mythology. It is in these myths that Mudzunga has found a subject matter for his art. This he achieves by using his drums and performances in the area of Fundudzi, activities that are against orthodox Venda belief.

Chinzima goes on to quote from Nettleton's essay 'The crocodile does not leave the pool: Venda Court Arts', stating that, "Drums� of royal courts all share certain stylistic and iconographic features, which constitute them as an easily distinguishable group in relation to� other Venda carved objects". According to Mudzunga, drums were used in initiation ceremonies like Domba, in the past held at the chief's behest and still staged at the chief's capitals. "These drums are also closely tied to their use in their national reed dance, the Tshikona," says Chinzima. "Mudzunga does agree that these and other ceremonies may be deemed private, although he continues to use his art to go public.

"Throughout my interaction with him," writes Chinzima, "[Mudzunga] stresses the need to publicise his art and himself. He sees his art as having the potency to challenge the institutionalised secrets perpetuated against people who do not know the truth. He insists that all the myths attached to Fundudzi are lies used strategically to push people out of the area. For example, he says the myth of zombies in the lake is untrue, as he grew up swimming there without a problem. Up to today he continues to drink water from the lake before he travels anywhere out of Venda. He also keeps part of the water that he drinks inside his grave he built in his yard. In addition, he also keeps his sangoma mother's healing preparations."

The issue of power relations has always played a dominant role in black culture, asserts Chinzima, qualifying this by acceding that it manifests itself in different ways. With it come notions of privacy and secrecy as means of dominating the average person within communities. "Mudzunga therefore uses his art to position himself to challenge the politics of power relations within his community. He has deliberately, on several occasions and without fear, broken the barriers that exist within his tribe. When he invited me into his grave - he claims that I was the first person to have been allowed inside - he insisted he wanted to make history with whatever he creates."

In Chinzima's view, Samson Mudzunga has changed the mindsets of many people, through his drums and performances, about how power can be constructed. He has also constructed himself into a powerful agent within his immediate community. Mudzunga has somehow succeeded in adding a contemporary element to his work by redefining the tradition of objects associated with Venda customs. He has given new meaning to what we see as a Venda drum, and to what we see as Venda traditional performances.

In order to achieve his ideals, Mudzunga has often placed himself in compromising positions. His actions include setting himself as an object and becoming part of the work, as in his burial performances. Quoting El Hadji Sy (1995) - "Without man - the artist, the creator - being considered one with his objects, a fresh analysis of contemporary arts in Africa could turn out to be an outmoded social phenomenology" - Chinzima concludes his essay by stating: "Being part of the creative process and being one with what you create is at the heart of Mudzunga's works."

The sources quoted by Chinzima include: Diab, R. (1995), 'Different Values - Universal Art: The State Of Modern African Art' in Africus: Johannesburg, Catalogue to the 1st Johannesburg Biennale (Greater Johannesburg Transitional Metropolitan Council, Johannesburg), pp. 28-29; Nettleton, A. (1989), 'The crocodile does not leave the pool: Venda Court Arts' in From Tradition to Township: African Art of Southern Africa edited by Nettleton, A. and Hammond-Tooke, DW (AD Donker, Johannesburg), pp. 67-83; and Sy, El Hadji (1995), 'Object of Performance" in Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa edited by Jane Havell (White Chapel Art Gallery, London), pp. 70-100.